Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Orthodoxy and Missions

Orthodoxy and missions are synonymous.  Even if I’ve been a part of an Orthodox parish my whole life and never been exposed to the Church’s mission work and never met a missionary and never gave missions a second thought, none of this negates the biblical and historical fact that the Orthodox Church is a missionary Church.  The very parish I am a part of would never have existed if someone hadn’t responded to Christ’s missionary call to ‘Go!’  We can trace our missionary heritage to the very beginning, starting with Jesus of Nazareth himself.

Christ the Sower

Jesus is the model for all Orthodox missions.  He left the culture of heaven and entered into our world as one of us – completely human and God the Son.  He learned our ways, ate our food, spoke our language.  When He taught, He used illustrations that were taken from the way we actually lived.  He constantly found ways to connect the Good News with the realities He engaged.  His mission was to overcome every barrier blocking our relationship with God the Trinity and our relationships with each other.  Neither cluelessness, nor unbelief, nor hardness of heart, nor murderous anger, nor human injustice nor even death itself could frustrate His work.  Jesus’ faithfulness, His work and His Gospel were all vindicated when He walked out of His tomb alive.  And while the world of humanity has continued for the most part in rebellion against the Creator, increasing numbers of men and women and children have heard of what Jesus did and who He is and of what He continues to do in our midst.  These people are tasting and seeing that the Lord is good, their lives have been touched by the love of the holy Trinity, their own priorities and way of life are being transformed.  And in contradiction to the surrounding world, their societies become a counter-culture, the place where heaven intersects earth, where life is transformed by life, where the love and power of Jesus and His Gospel touches hearts and changes them forever.  The movement started small, but has in time become a fulcrum that is moving the world.

St. Paul the Missionary

Jesus’ apostles heard Jesus’ call to ‘Go!’ and over the remainder of their lives, they did.  The Biblical record tells us something of Peter, and a lot more of Paul.  We know that James the brother of John died a martyr in Jerusalem.  For the rest we are dependent on the stories passed down from the churches they established all over the known world, from India and Mesopotamia, Egypt and Spain to England and Scotland.  They went in spite of the danger.  All of them, except John the Evangelist, met with martyrdom.

St. Thomas of India

Even when enduring spasms of persecution, Christian churches continued to grow, mainly because the contrast between the Christians’ way of life and their love for each other and the ways of the surrounding culture could not be denied.  Historians tend to gloss over the Christianization of Roman society over the first four centuries as if it were somehow explained by social or political factors.  But the real story is not some banner headline, but hundreds of tiny stories of how Christians lived as Christians amongst their neighbors, and how increasingly those neighbors found this compelling.  This is how all true growth of any church occurs.

Sts Cyril and Methodius

The story of Orthodox missions is too vast to be recounted here.  But the outlines are dramatic enough.  From former war-slave Patrick’s missionary work in Ireland, to the monks of Iona’s efforts in Scotland and northern Europe.  Christianity was planted among the tribes of central Europe by wandering monks, in the Axumite empire in Ethiopia by the Syrian teenager Frumentius, who became a slave in the royal family charged with educating the heir, and who through patience and faithfulness lived to see not only the royal family converted to Christianity, but the kingdom as well.  Awestruck emissaries from the Rus emperor Vladimir brought back reports of the liturgical worship at Hagia Sophia in Constantinople that resulted in the Russians converting to Orthodoxy.
But if the first thousand years of Orthodox history is one of dramatic expansion, the second thousand years is one of captivity and suffering.  And though the church’s mission was not forgotten, such were the pressures of warfare, or of living as an oppressed minority in a majority Muslim culture, survival was often the most these Eastern Churches could attain.  Not only were most of the formerly Orthodox lands under a millennium of Muslim control, but the horrific social and military experiments unleashed by Marxism and fascism in the twentieth centuries focused primarily on peoples who for centuries had been Orthodox.  The numbers of those slain because they were Christian, or caught in the cross fire, beggars belief.  The Russian revolution, the Second World War and subsequent Cold War was a time of martyrdom unmatched in the history of the Churches, and not just of Orthodox but of all branches of Christianity.

St. Frumentius (Abba Salama) of Ethiopia

Many of the Orthodox Christians who have come to the United States in the past hundred years were fleeing persecution, oppression and deprivation.  Lives of mere survival in the motherland were transformed for successive boatloads of immigrants into lives of opportunity for them and their children.  And while some of these descendants of Orthodox immigrants were absorbed into the great American melting pot, others maintained their Orthodox faith, gathered in parishes and carried on with the Orthodox way of life inherited from their ancestors and now transplanted into the new world.

St. Patrick of Ireland

Many of these local Orthodox communities in the US have neither thought much about the missionary call upon their church, nor seen any reason to engage with any sort of ‘mission’ outside helping the poor and the orphaned back in the home country.  And while this good work is not to be minimized, the posture of many American Orthodox Churches is not far removed from that of their forbears during times of oppression and persecution.  Missions is seen as a luxury that the church doesn’t have the time for and which the church and her members can little afford.

St. Vladimir

But this is not an Orthodox stance.  From the beginning, Orthodox Christians have understood that God’s grace is not something that is simply for me, or for us alone.  Rather, we are meant to be channels of God’s grace, we are meant to be the means by which God’s grace gets to people who would otherwise be cut off from it.  Missions, historically speaking, was not the prerogative of the hierarchy, or of the monastics, or of special people with a special call.  Missions is the what the Church does.  Missions is what the Church is.  It’s the prayers of the Church that makes missions possible.  It’s the giving of the Church that makes Missions happen.  It’s the obedience of the Church that makes missions a reality.  God has many ways to communicate His love to those who do not yet know it.  But His primary way starts with the Church.

St Herman of Alaska

Churches who have forgotten this have lost their way.  These churches may be large, they may be beautiful, they may be filled with powerful people, but they are living for themselves and have missed the point.

St. Nicholas of Japan

There is a renaissance in Orthodox missions today.  More and more Orthodox Churches are discovering their calling to be God’s difference in this world.  More and more Orthodox Christians are giving up successful career tracks in order to help with the mission.  New converts are being baptized in Africa, in Asia, in Latin America; new Churches are being formed and consecrated.  New communities of faith are being instructed.  New opportunities to reach out to local communities in need are being realized.  And the same dynamism that propelled the earliest Christians to the ends of the earth and facilitated the conversion of the pagan cultures of their day is being seen again in our own.  These are tremendously exciting times in the history of Orthodox missions.  The great question facing all of us is, will we sit back and watch as distracted spectators from the grandstands, or will we hear God call our name and the name of our parish to join his team out on the field?

All Saints of North America